Grain Industries Ltd is one of the major players in Kenya’s grain milling industry.
The grain milling industry is one of the most vibrant in Africa – and by the Eastern African perspective, one of the oldest. The sector in the region has make significant progress over the last decade, with new investments in new plants and upgrades, new product innovations, while the pace of technological advancements have made the region one of the most vibrant.
No company represents the changing face of the milling industry in Eastern Africa better than Grain Industries Ltd (GIL). As it celebrated its fifth anniversary in August 2022, GIL, the maker of the popular Ajab range of wheat and maize flour products, the company’s CEO Munir Thabit took time to reflect on the company’s journey from 2017 to the present.
“We opened our doors on 11th of August 2017, the day after the General Elections in Kenya, when most businesses were closing due to the uncertainties brought by the elections,” he began the story, alluding to Kenya’s historically hotly-contested elections. Kenya is Eastern Africa’s most critical economy, and continues to be the milling sector’s most important in the region.
Located at Shimanzi area within the Mombasa Island, the GIL factory is situated within the busy part of the coastal city, a short distance from the Mombasa port. Heavy trucks haul goods from the port into Mombasa and its environs and further inland into Kenya and the Great Lakes region of Africa day and night, and with it, GIL ships its range of products into the vast retail and distribution network it has created across Kenya.
A former banker with a short stint in the Armed Forces, Munir is appreciative of the huge strides the miller has made in the short time since they opened the plant – and the vast potential that lies ahead. “We are the biggest wheat miller by capacity and market share. It took us less than 60 months to get to where we are and we can only be thankful to our customers for making us No.1.”
Largest mill in Kenya
The company’s General Manager Patrick Muriuki, a veteran of the milling sector in the region, and who took the Milling Middle East & Africa team around the facility with a sense of pride on his face, says that the mill has lots of unique features, chief of which is the 2250 MT per day installed capacity wheat mills, the largest by any miller in Eastern Africa at a single location.
“We opened the mill with the 750 tonnes, that is our Mill A in 2017. To fully appreciate the progress by the team in the last 5 years, we have become the biggest miller with the largest milling capacity in Kenya through God’s grace and inspirational leadership from our investors. Currently, there is no single mill that has more than 1700 TPD in Kenya, where several groups operate in, with some of them nearly 100 years old, other than our plant. Within 36 months after we opened Mill A, we set in motion our plans for expansion and added a second 750 TPD plant, our current Mill B and simultaneously added the third 750 TPD plant, our Mill C. We are currently having a total installed capacity of 2250 TPD as we celebrate our 5th anniversary,” Munir informed us.
He revealed that it was not an easy decision by the management team and the investors to invest in the 750 TPD mill at the start of the operations, since at that time a mill of such a scale had not been seen before in Kenya, but that it was it was a deliberate and well thought out decision, which was linked to the strategy of the business, in terms of the sales and innovation strategies. The miller also entered into the maize milling business by installing a 400 TPD maize milling plant – this was done at the same time Mill B and C were constructed, he adds.
“I appreciate the team’s efforts to get us where we are today, since from the time we started our operations in 2017, we soon ran into supply issues; the demand for our products was much higher than we could meet with the plant’s installed capacity. We therefore had to expand our operations substantially to meet exploding demand of the products.”
Our main mission is to consistently improve the living standards of our consumers by providing them with world class quality products
Benson Ochieng -sales & marketing manager, GIL
Innovative products meet consumer needs
“Our company’s main mission is to consistently improve the living standards of our consumers by providing them with world class quality products and services as well as value of money. We have achieved this ambitious goal through a rigorous product quality framework built in our systems right from raw material sourcing to the mill and into the marketplace. We also have a nation-wide distribution set up that builds on our strength of partnerships with supermarkets, distributors and small business operators across the country, as well as our own-managed distribution points and a market feedback mechanism,” explains Benson Ochieng’, the Sales & Marketing Manager.
The Ajab brand of all-purpose home baking flour is the company’s flagship. Easy to pronounce and remember by consumers across the board, Ajab has become the consumers’ favourite due to its high quality and excellent absorption properties, ensuring that the user gets real value for their wheat flour, whether they would like to make chapati, cakes, biscuits, muffins or bread, Ochieng’ adds.
The company has over the last five years expanded its Ajab branded products beyond Ajab All-purpose home baking flour to include Ajab Chapati flour, Ajab Mandazi flour and Ajab Atta Mark 1 flour, to respond to specific needs of the consumers in Kenya, who are increasingly seeking specified products for their cooking purposes. The Ajab maize meal has also created its space within the highly competitive maize meal market since its launch.
Further the company has the Umi and Lotus home baking flours that meet the needs of the value-oriented customers in the country. To cap it all, the company’s Asli wheat flour brand is availed to bakeries, noodle and biscuit manufacturers across the country.
“Our extensive distribution network has enabled us to avail our range of products across the country over the last five years, and we are thankful to our distributors, supermarkets and other partners for making us No.1 within a very short time. We are number two in terms of depots and branches in Kenya, with depots in Malindi, Ukunda, Mariakani, Voi, Nairobi, Kitui, Emali and Kisumu. We also partly do the last mile delivery of products and have distributors and other players we have partnered with to ensure that our products reach the small traders and businesses across the country.
While lauding its customers for making GIL and its list of brands the leaders in Kenya, Munir also says that the impact of the business, apart from job creation has been impressive, apart from the company being the highest tax paying miller in Kenya.
Food safe and award-winning company
Munir notes that the recipe to success of GIL has to do with more than having the iconic Ajab brand but various strategies put together by the investors and the management which have enabled the team to achieve many accolades, including becoming winners of several awards in the country.
“We opened our doors on the 11th of August, 2017 and by December 15, we received our first accolade as the Best New company for Kenya Chamber of Commerce, Coast region, where we also won in the Customer Focus category and were second runners up in the Best Employer category,” he underscores. The company has since won many other awards.
“We are also the first mill in the country that is ISO 22000 certfied, the most important food safety certification. We are also ISO 45001 certified, which is for occupational health and safety. We are also ISO 14001, which is for environmental systems management and the only mill in East and Central Africa that has a fully fledged microbiological laboratory with the ability to detect all the various types of toxins.”
“These, and many more reasons, is why we are the only millers in Kenya who have a thumbs-up sign on our products with the words ‘Toxins Safe.’ Most mills have a general laboratory but ours is an actual microbiological laboratory and both the wheat and the maize laboratories meet the ISO 17025 requirements. We are working currently working with the Kenya National Accreditation Service (KENAS) for the purpose of accreditation of our laboratories to qualify as a commercial lab just like any other external labs for use by other industry stakeholders in the region.”
He adds that it’s no longer adequate for consumers to think that the products are safe – it is important to communicate to them that the company has done all it can to assure the food is safe for the consumer.
“You will notice that so far, none of the GIL brands have been withdrawn by the authorities from the shelves yet, because we do not believe in trial and error: we believe in getting it right, first time. That’s why we have invested significantly in our laboratory infrastructure and people over the years of our operations.”
On the day of our visit to the plant, the quality assurance team were busy testing out their flour brands by baking and cooking chapatis and other baked goods and snacks at their onsite facility.
The mill’s location near the busy port of Mombasa means that the installation team had to be creative to ensure that the region’s largest mill by capacity could fit into the relatively small piece of land, and leave some space for offices, storage and logistics, according to Muriuki.
He explains that the installation of the high-capacity mill in one location is a plus to the team and the company. “Having one centralized milling plant has lots of advantages. What we have is a management team that is all located at one location – the CEO, General Manager and other key management are located within the plant, making it easier to manage the operations of the mill and other issues.”
Muriuki says that GIL’s engineering team together with equipment supplier Buhler worked together from the onset to do a marvelous job and have continued to do so, whenever new projects have been initiated at the mill. One of the interesting innovations is the location of the finished products dispatch area, which is tucked in nicely below the maize milling plant.
“Kenya is a net importer of wheat, importing more than 80% of its demand, with the port of Mombasa handling the bulk of the imports. Our location near the port reduces on our supply chain costs. It is also much better to transport finished products from Mombasa to the markets in the rest of the country, which is a significant advantage to us,” Muriuki explains.
Muriuki is particularly proud of two key elements at the mill, apart from the excellent engineering, automation and design of the entire plant: the weighbridge and the finished product loading systems.
Considering the space constraints, GIL’s raw materials – maize and wheat – are largely stored out of the mill, with regular planning with the raw materials team every day, to ensure no pileups occur at the reception area, as the trucks arrive with the load.
“Every day, we already know the trucks that will deliver raw materials to the mill since they are pre-booked. At the weighbridge, as each truck approaches, a camera picks the registration of the truck and uploads the details into the weighbridge’s system, after which the gate of the weighbridge opens to let the truck into the weighbridge. After the weighing process is done and all the details are captured into the system, the truck enters an enclosed raw material receipt area that is completely closed, ensuring that we manage all the dust that may have come in with the grain. This is important for us to have a clean environment and to ensure we have minimal loss of materials, if any.”
The other unique feature of the mill is the finished product loading system, which uses a minimal number of staff and eases the loading process, thereby fastening the loading while reducing any chances of staff injury. The system also captures all the required product traceability data for use by the company, thereby improving of efficiency and food safety.
The 7-floor mill is fully automatic and runs on Buhler’s Wincos system. Taking a walk within the mill with the General Manager, one cannot fail to notice the high level of hygiene and cleanliness across the mill, and the pride on the faces of the employees you meet.
“Our mill is one of the most automated mills in Eastern Africa. On any shift, we have about seven staff who are actually involved in the operations of the mill. The maximum staff at the mill responds to the number of floors in the mill. My role is to guide at higher level on the operational issues of the plant, while also coordinating on raw material sourcing, engineering and maintenance activities of the mill,” Muriuki enlightens us.
“I am supported by a qualified team of young engineers – electrical and mechanical engineers – plus the support of the quality assurance team. All our operations team are qualified professionals with university degrees and have a number of years of experience.”
The mill has a lift system to enable staff to attend to issues whenever they arise. “I can tell you that the lift is not for luxury, it is to enhance the efficiency of the work.” It also has an in-built crane to aid in the hoisting of heavy equipment.
Muriuki says that GIL recruited young university graduates and then trained them on the job. “When I suggested to the company that we bring in new graduates, I didn’t receive an enthusiastic support, with many concerned how I was planning to run such a huge mill with such inexperienced staff. I said that I would bring them into the company and train them on how to do things right, not any other way.”
Taking the lead
Munir reveals that recruitment, training and retention of the right staff has been one of the bedrocks to the success of GIL, with the company believing in having staff who are qualified and have passion for the job.
The firm also believes in uplifting its lower cadre staff into higher levels through mentorship and training, with several former casual or contracted staff already taking higher responsibility within the company. “On training and building the capacity of our staff, we have done quite a lot. The ISO certifications themselves require training, and right now, the staff are undergoing the final stages of ISO 9001, which is on quality management. This will be the fourth ISO certification for the company in five years, and in many cases we have gone beyond meeting basic requirements to meeting international requirements as well. We are the only mill that that supplies to American fast food restaurant KFC in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, because they have their internal requirements, including the product meeting strict quality requirements.
“Apart from the training, there’s a lot of transparency in the way we do things at GIL. It’s not a one man show – it is teamwork and and we believe in empowerment of our people. We believe in developing our staff because if you consider staff empowerment as a cost centre and a source of costs, you will work towards cost reduction; but if you look at your staff as assets, you will work towards developing them,” he empahizes.
“We are a world class mill because we compete at the world class level. Geographically, we are in Kenya, but if you go anywhere in the world we have one of the most modern mills. We believe in going for the best. If you want to give the best, you have got to have all the best in order to have the best final product.”
Future made of more
As we sought his revelations into the next 5 years, Mounir was contemplative for a moment, before gazing ahead with the air of purpose.
“As we forward into the next 5 years, we intend to be a fully fledged FMCG company in Kenya and the region. Our vision and focus are at another level, as we seek to take advantage of our strengths and the many emerging opportunities in the country and beyond,” he reveals.
Munir, who is a board member of the Cereal Millers Association, believes that the milling sector in Kenya has gone through tough times, especially in the sourcing of maize, which is largely sourced locally or from neighboring countries. He looks forward to Kenya streamlining the procurement of maize to bring more certainty in the process.
“While each individual company has its own sourcing policy, all of us face an extremely challenging environment in terms of availability of maize all year round at affordable prices, and quality is another issue that requires all the sectoral players to come together to ensure consumers everywhere have access to quality, nutritious and safe maize meal products. For example, quite a number of trucks that we do reject because they do not meet our quality standards due to our standards on aflatoxin, end up at someother millers.”
Asked to make a final statement to the company’s customers, Munir had this to say: “We are passionate about what we do. We are ethical about what we do, we believe in our products and our personnel. We don’t take our customers for granted,” he concluded.
This feature appeared in the Dec 2022 issue of Milling Middle East & Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE